Karen Miller's Last Night at Eighty-Eights

May 29th, 1999

by John Kenrick

(Please note: All the photos below are thumbnails you can click on to see a full size image.)

The crowd sings at Eighty Eights (18981 bytes)When the chips are down, it's good to be surrounded by musical theatre buffs. Musicals cannot alter unpleasant realities, but their songs and trappings can be used to knock most disappointments down to size. ("Hey kids, let's put on a show!") That is why Karen Miller's last night at Eighty-Eights was less a farewell than a celebration – of Karen, of the bar, and of the music and camaraderie we had shared there over the last eleven years. For some weeks we had all been dreading this night, but armed with music, lyrics, choreography, costumes and sets, we made it one hell of a party. It would be impractical to catalog every song and performer in the five hour marathon. Below are some photos and commentary that cover the highlights and hopefully give you a sense of what the night was like.

From the moment Karen started her first set, the tables were filled and the standees were packed in right up to the piano. There were times that nothing short of a bulldozer could have cut a path through the mob – though the absent Rochelle Seldin would have had no problem! As it was, Gentry Clausen weathered the chaos gamely and everyone tried as best they could to make way. As mobs go, it was quite a pleasant one! The early part of the evening featured lots of sing-along, but there were also soloists aplenty. It seemed everyone wanted one more chance to share the spotlight with Karen and thank her for the years of encouragement and friendship.

Mark Alan (11287 bytes)One of the first star turns was cabaret veteran Mark Alan. He recalled coming to The Duplex as a kid from Connecticut over twenty years ago and being encouraged by Karen to sing at the open microphone. That is when this baritone "channeled Julie Andrews" for the first time, singing "Shady Dame" from Victor/Victoria in all its soprano-ish glory. Mark demonstrated that he could still pull off this hilarious routine as trillingly as ever. He also graced us with his trademark rendition of "The Masochism Tango" – not something for the feint of heart! Mark looked tanned and radiant, and Karen led all of us in cheering his recent victory over leukemia. It wasn't the reaction of a bar crowd – it was the genuine affection of an extended family embracing one of its own.

Jonathan Zenz (11633 bytes)We sang through the scores of several shows, from longtime favorites Camelot and Oklahoma! to newer works. After we raised the roof with Ragtime's glorious title song, Jonathan Zenz (at left) gave a touching performance of "Silhouettes." His mid-summer attire was no accident – like all of us, he was contending with failing AC and sweltering temperatures. Jonathan saved the day when the sound system overheated – with some quick thinking and a small electric fan, he made it possible for the show to go on. (Hey, it always helps to have friends who are former techies!)

John Kenrick sings 
    (21379 bytes)Towards the end of the first set, a few ballads (including a touching "Sail Away" by Gentry) had set the first tears flowing. Rather than take her mid-evening break on a down note, Karen asked yours truly to kick it up with "Be Our Guest." (Yes, that's me in the Titanic T-shirt.) Happy to oblige, I surprised her with a new line: "There's some news for which we're hopin' – just when does your new gig open?" Without skipping a beat, Karen ad-libbed, "New gig? If there's anyone here who needs a dog trainer, please call!"

The Von Trapp Family? (21838 bytes)Shortly after midnight, things resumed with the inevitable Rent medley, which (to my delight) I was elected to interrupt for the announcement, "Ladies and gentlemen, the children of Captain Von Trapp would like to say goodbye." At that point, seven of the regulars emerged in Sound of Music costumes (made out of golden drapery fabric) for a fully choreographed rendition of "So Long, Farewell." It was a grand bit of camp! When "Little Gretel" turned out to be a bearded bass baritone carrying a South Park doll, hilarity reigned. As the number came to its sentimental conclusion with the "children" singing goodbye and heading up the stairs, Karen could not decide if she should laugh or cry – so she sensibly did both.

Karen then read an open letter from Rochelle Seldin. Ro had co-founded the place with Irv Raible and Karen back in 1988, but was unable to be with us because of her new business in Provincetown. Ro sent her love and said how much she looked forward to singing with us again soon. She also included personal reminiscences and asides to many in the room. Her words left many of us in tears, reminding us how much we miss this dear friend. Then Karen wiped her eyes and offered her own thoughts, saying what a gift these last eleven years had been, and how wonderful it was to feel so much love and support from staff and friends.

She then asked me to join her at the piano for a number. (Once everyone is wreck, call on John to cheer 'em up – the story of my life!) It is an invitation I have happily accepted thousands of times over the years, but knowing it John Kenrick (14584 bytes) was the last time for at least a little while made it difficult. However, the show must go on, and our theatre-lovers parody of Gilbert & Sullivan's "Modern Major General" got the place back on the upswing. Karen then joined friends in the crowd as Dennis took over at the piano for a special tribute. From the back kitchen, regulars Michael and Greg emerged with a huge sign reading "KAREN." Pandemonium! Once the sign was placed in the nook behind the piano, I led a sing-along parody of "Mame" prepared for the occasion:

Which girl is still our Queen of the Keys? (Karen!)
Which girl still gets these queens on their knees? (Karen!)
Tonight seems a disaster
But counting out this lady would be dumb!
There's nothing I'd put past her –
Miss Karen Miller's best is yet to come!
Who's known the worst of piano bar hell? (Karen!)
Who's known the worst . . .and best of Rochelle? (Karen!)
Thank heaven she has Maggie,
And crowds of friends who'd rate her as a ten.
No matter, hard or simple song,
No matter if we sing 'em wrong,
Who plays on for us loud and strong? (Karen!)

Karen Miller and Irv Raibel (12871 bytes)Karen stood with an armed wrapped around Eighty-Eights co-owner Irv Raible as the entire crowd joined in recalling the songs and shtick that filled so many Friday and Saturday nights. Of course, there was no way to list all the hundreds of shows and thousands of songs in our repertoire, but we made a game effort:

Well hush my mouth and freeze my face,
She's brought some elegance to the place.
She plays any showtune you might care to name. (Karen!)
There's Sound of Music, King & I,
And South Pacific's "A Wonderful Guy"
There's Mabel, La Cage, Hello Dolly and Mame. (Karen!)
"Not a Day Goes By," "What a Beautiful Mornin',"
"Tomorrow," "Tonight," "It's Today,"
"New York, New York," "Barcelona" and Oklahoma OK!
Her Twentieth Cent'ry and Music Man medley
Are both in tremendous demand,
And she makes West Side Story something grand!

After years of sending out good energy to others, Karen got to be on the receiving end for a change – she later said it embarrassed the hell out of her, but we suspect that at some level she enjoyed it anyway. The number ended with a standing ovation for Ms. Miller that lasted several minutes.

And the night was far from over . . .

Continue on to Part Two